Ivan Garcia, 29 April 2015 — The urology ward at Calixto Garcia Hospital is a bleak scene. Patients in soiled pajamas wander through the halls like zombies with serum on their hands, in search of a urologist, who hasn’t come through the intake room all morning.
Ubaldo, sitting on a granite bench outside the room, chain smoking, waits for a nurse to change his bag full of discharge and urine after emergency surgery for an intestinal blockage.
The old hospital, built in the early years of the twentieth century, is being remodeled at a snail’s pace. But work has not yet reached the urology suite. Nevertheless, Ubaldo claims that Calixto Garcia is one the best hospitals.
“Of those existing for the people, only Amejeiras Brothers is better. It’s true that many of the rooms in Calixto Garcia are dilapidated. But because it’s a teaching institution, the quality of doctors is high. I live in Manzanillo and compared to a hospital there or in another eastern province, Calixto is a five-star hotel,” he says.
Is it commonly said that patients cross their fingers when entering a hospital on the island. The people come carrying buckets, cleaning rags, bedding, electric fans, and even televisions. As if they were going on a trip.
Families with means bring lunch and dinner to the patient, and sometimes also to the attending doctor or nurse.
“Now doctors and specialists earn around 1,500 pesos a month (60 CUC, roughly US$55-60), but many are still struggling. Senior medical students who serve internship receive a paltry stipend. So you try to give them gifts in money or things; the sacrifice of our doctors is tremendous. There should be two monuments erected in Cuba: one to the people, for putting up for so long with a system that does not work; and the other to physicians, who go to work leaving behind piles of problems at home,” says Alina, whose father has been admitted to the surgical clinic.
In Turcios Limas, a specialty clinic in Reparto Sevillano, a half-hour from downtown Havana, a small line starts forming at 6:00 a.m. to check on the availability of dermatology services.
“Supposedly they have to be available every Monday. But for two weeks the specialist hasn’t come. In the last year, four or five dermatologists have passed through here. They last no longer than a marshmallow in a school door. Then they go on a mission abroad and leave the patients in the lurch. I’ve complained to the neighborhood delegate and to MINSAP (Ministry of Public Health), but neither one has done anything for me,” an elderly woman complains.
One doctor, a specialist in burns, acknowledges that it is absurd to send doctors to Brazil or Venezuela, thereby causing a shortage in Cuba. “The doctors are going to these missions to be able to improve their own quality of life. The Ministry of Public Health should guarantee relief coverage. Medical collaborations are the principal business of this country, earning between eight and nine billion dollars a year. So the result is to export doctors and screw the people,” she says.
Chile was the first country to receive medical cooperation from the newly established revolutionary government. That first medical team was sent after the strong earthquake and tsunami of May 22, 1960, which devastated southern Chile. In 1963, after seven years of war against French colonialism, Algeria asked for healthcare assistance from Fidel Castro. Flights left for Algiers carrying 28 physicians, 3 dentists, 8 technicians, and 15 nurses.
Since then, Cuba has used doctors as a spearhead in its foreign policy. In poor countries in Africa or Haiti, the costs are borne by the World Health Organization or the Cuban regime, which with these collaborations secures a safe vote in the Human Rights Council and conclaves of the UN.
“It is very difficult for those countries to accuse Raul Castro of dictatorship when Cuban doctors have saved the lives of thousands of its citizens. The strategy is to buy political will. And they have succeeded,” says Robert, a retired doctor.
Despite the olive-green autocracy appropriating 70 percent of the salary paid to Cuban doctors in Brazil and Venezuela, the signup list for missions abroad is extensive.
“In Brazil you’re left with $1,200 of the $4,200 per month that [Brazilian President] Dilma Rousseff pays [the Castro regime for each doctor]. True, it’s robbery. But with what you can save in three years, you can buy an apartment or a car when you return to Cuba. We’re probably poorest doctors in the world,” says Raciel, an anesthesiologist.
Until 1989, the health system in Cuba was a gem. In a country with blackouts and rationing, Fidel Castro strutted on the platform, statistics in hand, displaying the unquestionable level of Cuban medicine.
But it has rained a lot since then. And the reversal is remarkable. The family-doctor program, a government strategy to place one physician and one nurse in each neighborhood for primary care, is now barely functioning.
Most of the clinics that were built are closed or have become uninhabitable. The few that are functioning have to serve a large number of patients.
In recent years they have started repairing hospitals and specialty clinics, but the quality and slowness of the work leave much to be desired. The shortage of specialists requires residents of other provinces to come to the capital for medical care.
Then there are the abuses of the regime. This is the case of those serving in Brazil. As required by the Mais Doctors Plan, implemented by the Brazilian government, the doctors can live with their families. But Cuban authorities only allow the families to stay for three months, angering those serving in that country.
“Within the medical staff there are fifty or sixty guys, obviously from State Security, whose mission is to monitor what we do,” says a doctor who had to return from Brazil for health reasons.
Today Cuba has health personnel in 67 countries, and about 50,000 doctors and specialists providing their services abroad.
In “More Doctors, More Health,” an article by Frei Betto published on April 20 in Cubadebate, the author of the book Fidel and Religion says that in Brazil there are 18,247 Cuban professionals scattered over 4,000 municipalities of his country, 14,000 of them in locations that are the poorest and most distant from urban centers. He estimates that in 2015 Cuban doctors will attend to some 63 million Brazilians.
Meanwhile, in Cuba there is a significant shortage of specialists, many hospitals are filthy and dilapidated, and the quality of care is in freefall. At the same time, there are exclusive clinics for foreigners, ministers, and generals. But that is another story.
Photo: Conditions in the bathrooms of Hospital Freyre de Andrade, Centro Habana, best known for Emergency Hospital. Fernando Freyre de Andrade (Cuba 1863-1929), military, lawyer and politician, was the seventh mayor of Havana. Photo by Julio Cesar Alvarez taken from CubaNet.
Iván García, 29 April 2015 — The first time that Yumilka, a teacher, felt discriminated against because of the color of her skin she was only four years old. “It was in the daycare center. I remember coming home crying. A group of children called me ‘negritilla’ or lousy black girl. They didn’t want to share their toys with me. My parents talked to the director and she told them that this was just kid stuff, which couldn’t be classified as racism.”
Racial prejudice continued into her youth. When her boyfriend, a caucasian, took her home to his parents, their silent treatment had an overtly discriminatory overtone.
“After we broke up, I learned that his parents criticized him for not finding a ’whiter’ woman, since they were not in favor of ’combing raisins.’ His father told him that black women were for having sex with, but not for marrying. These were members of the Communist Party, who worked in foreign trade,” recalls Yumilka.
Laritza Diversent, a dissident lawyer, also suffered racist humiliations when she did her baccalaureate studies at the Lenin Vocational School, an elite center founded by Fidel Castro on the outskirts of Havana.
“Besides being black, I was very poor. Everyone looked at me like a freak when I arrived. The children of senior government officials studied at Lenin. Almost all were white and many were not only racist, but outspoken,” recalls Laritza.
In a primary school in the Havana township of Diez de Octubre in Mariana, a sixth-grade student says that humiliations based on skin color happen almost every day.
“Most black students are the poorest—those without tablets, who wear patched sneakers, and bring bread with salad oil for their snack. Not just the white kids call them names, but the mixed-race ones also,” he says.
Racism in Cuba is a phenomenon that the regime tries to hush up, or does not give the full attention it deserves. After 25 years of perpetual economic crisis, social differences have accentuated racial segregation.
During that time, worse than racial discrimination is the pervasive social control by the state, the low participation of citizens in shaping policy strategies, and the outright apartheid of the military autocracy, which excludes Cubans under the new Investment Law or prohibits them access to boats in tourist centers.
Fidel Castro did not bring racism to Cuba. More or less subtly, there were always prejudices based on skin color, facial features, or “kinky” hair. There were parks and clubs for whites only. Even the dictator Fulgencio Batista, a mestizo, was denied entry to one of those clubs.
Although slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886, blacks were left at a clear disadvantage in the social order. They had neither property nor wealth. Their educational level was low.
In 1912, the Independent Party of Color, led by Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonet, took up arms and about 3000 blacks and mestizos were massacred by the government of José Miguel Gómez.
At the head of the officers who executed the shooting was Colonel José Martí, son of the illustrious Cuban hero and humanist. 103 years later, the national historiography wants to soft pedal the criminal event.
There is no evidence that Fidel Castro is racist. But he had a clumsy political strategy for handling the issue. Upon establishing a system where supposedly no social classes existed, he assumed that racial discrimination had disappeared with the triumph of his revolution.
Racism did not disappear, it merely mutated. It disguised itself in various forms, and white supremacy in key state positions became permanent. Fifty-six years after his rise to power, blacks are only a majority in the crowded Cuban jails.
Finding statistics on inequality is cumbersome. The state archives contain few figures. But according to Fidel Castro himself, in a speech in January 2000, 80% of the prison population was black or mixed race.
As a rule, blacks on the island live in the worst housing, earn the lowest wages, do not finish college, and in order to move up the social ladder turn to sports, Santeria, music, or military life.
Currently, a large number of policemen are black or mixed race. So are many of the henchmen who repress dissidents. That does not stop them from having a racist modus operandi.
When conducting raids, they often detain black or mixed race youths. “It’s the operating profile. A black with a backpack is always a suspicious guy,” said a policeman.
According to the dissident Juan Antonio Madrazo, national coordinator of a citizens committee for racial integration, “in Cuba there is an ideology of whitening.”
Among blacks and mestizos, pressure has been applied to marry or have children with white people “to advance or improve the race.”
According to a sociologist consulted, the number of marriages or consensual unions between blacks and whites has skyrocketed in the last 15 years. “Racism in Cuba is most evident in the sectors of culture, the media, and companies with foreign capital and foreign trade.”
Nuria, a housewife, believes that racial taunts and humiliation during childhood are of concern. “It’s a problem of family education. It is in the home where these children hear slurs against blacks.”
The regime has created the Aponte Commission to draw up a more accurate map of racism. Intellectuals like Roberto Zurbano, Sandra Alvarez, and Victor Fowles recognize that the phenomenon is a veritable Pandora’s box.
One hundred and twenty-nine years after slavery was abolished in Cuba, blacks remain prisoners of their race. Yumilka, the teacher who suffered humiliation at just four years of age, asks, “How much longer?”
Ivan Garcia, 15 April 2015 — There were two Summits of the Americas. The one that will be remembered by history is the one of Raul Castro, wide-eyed in the presence of Barack Obama, like a boy waiting to ask for an autograph from a movie star leaving a hotel.
When the tale is told of the VII Summit (which took place in Panama on April 10 and 11, 2015), historians will recall General Castro’s 48-minute speech and his flattering remarks about the U.S. president. And Obama’s comments.
Cuba in 2015 will be remembered for what it is: a country of autocrats where human rights are limited to the right to life, work, universal health coverage and education.
The remaining rights are, according to the regime, fairy tales of bourgeois democracy. Presidential elections? For what? There is no need for multiple parties when one will do. Public demonstrations in the streets and at universities are only for those who support the Castros.
Raul Castro is like a contortionist. He has put away the daggers of Fidel Castro’s strongman, absolutist government and has begun to open the door slowly. But his feet remain planted on the other side of the threshold.
Capital investments and loans are only for foreigners. In terms of foreign policy, it appears to be a normal country. The era of providing material support for Latin America’s guerrillas is over, as are attempts to create one, two or a hundred Vietnams.
These are now part of the military’s book of memories. For the slogan-loving, anarchist members of the Jurassic left, there are still the speeches of Fidel Castro and the berets of Che Guevara.
The strategy in the backrooms of power is to negotiate with the enemy, trading military uniforms for guayaberas and postponing the construction of a communist utopia in order to build state capitalism with former generals and colonels in charge.
It’s a makeover. A modern dictatorship. It is still intolerant of those with differing opinions, but now no blood is shed. Only a few fractured skulls, punches and brief detentions for dissenters.
The yin and the yang. Obama is banking on a change of course. Nothing will be lost if the objectives are not met. The problem is Cuba. The White House, ever pragmatic, thinks it is better to negotiate with Raul.
This is nothing new. They have dealt with vile figures such as Somoza, Pinochet and Duvalier. One more dictator in the bag is no big deal. Democracy can wait.
It would be even better if a flood of dollars and gum-chewing gringos in Havana managed to undermine the island’s totalitarian regime. Obama’s change of strategy could be the key to keeping 21st century socialists in line.
Some of this was evident at the summit in Panama. Maduro, Correa, Morales and Ortega were relegated to the background. Cuba, the ideological parent, tamped down the old Hugo Chavez rhetoric.
It is yet to be seen if Obama’s new policy will achieve its objectives or will fail, but it is undeniably a different direction. Meanwhile, Raul Castro has his own plans.
When he looks at himself in the mirror, he sees the saviour of the Revolution he inherited from his brother. He foresees a lavish military parade in 2059, staged by his relatives and countrymen to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Castro dynasty.
The master plan involves business deals, social control and a modern foreign policy. At this point the island’s ideologues are more inclined to look towards the late founder of independent Singapore rather than to Deng Xiao Ping.
They will retain their old methods, of course, like confiscating the passports of their most steadfast opponents or dispatching a squadron of karate experts disguised as members of “civil society” to spar with them.
Cuba blatantly exports its acts of repudiation. With the snap of a finger, they summon fanatical anarchists, convinced that imperialists and their lackeys are heavily involved.
On a mission ordered by their boss, special agents crash parallel forums at the summit in which Cuban dissidents take part. This is one side of the Castros.
The other side is the one that flatters Obama. It provides caviar for technology gurus, hoping they will invest in Cuba, and tries to convince U.S. lobbyists that the island is an attractive market for food exports.
Something of a circus-like atmosphere surrounded the summit. It got a lot of media attention but produced very few results. With the economies of Latin American countries entering recession, the roaring economy of the United States attracted the interest of the region’s heads of state.
The Cuba of the Castros is one of nostalgia and an outlet for the anti-American sentiment. A country of pure symbolism, it has many doctors and ideologues but their contributions do not impact the GDP.
Obama knows this. This is why he is gambling on a strategy to tame the lion tamer.
Ivan Garcia, 6 April 2015 — Without being an expert in economic matters or the Wall Street currency market, Erasmo likes to trust his instincts. For fourteen years he has been engaged in buying and selling dollars and euros.
Also convertible pesos. In the doorway of his house, within walking distance of a state-run currency exchange (CADECA), he offers his services in a lowered voice to the people standing in line to buy or sell CUCs.
“Privately buying or selling currency is illegal in Cuba. The police have already sent me a warning letter and I have paid two fines of 1,200 Cuban pesos (about 50 dollars) for transacting currency exchanges.”
His modus operandi is simple. Like the state, he buys the CUC for 24 pesos and resells it for 25. But for international currencies, such as the dollar or the euro, he pays a better price than the state banks.
“I’m starting to see Cuban residents of the U.S. who are visiting the island, wanting to exchange five or six thousand dollars. The state pays 0.87 CUC for every dollar. I offer 0.94 CUC for bills up to twenty dollars. On large bills of 50 and 100 dollars I pay 0.95. And I have clients who I will buy from at one-for-one,” said Erasmo.
The olive-green regime has mounted exchange operations remote from the framework of world prices. Cuba, despite its third-world economy and infrastructure, by official decree pegs its currency to the U.S. dollar by its own free will.
When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the Cuban peso was valued on par with the dollar. But economic planning and nationalization of businesses dramatically reduced the production of goods and wealth.
The State used artificial exchange rates and prohibited the possession of hard currency. Cuban law carried punishments of up to five years’ imprisonment for persons possessing foreign currency or engaging in currency exchange.
In street slang, “jinetear” [jockeying]—a word that used to be used for prostitution—was applied to people prowling hotels and resorts to buy dollars, paying a better price than that offered at the official exchange.
“During the mid-80s, I went every day to La Rampa, in Vedado, to “jockey” greenbacks. The government bought dollars one-for-one. We jineteros paid four or five pesos. We invested the profits in buying clothes and food from foreign students or residents who bought them at stores selling for U.S. dollars, to which we Cubans were prohibited access,” says Juan Carlos, who has been conducting clandestine foreign exchange for more than thirty years.
In 1993, with the legalization of the U.S. dollar, hyperinflation soared in the country. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the USSR, Cuba plunged into an era of poverty.
Oxen replaced tractors, and one hot meal a day was a family event. Food prices soared and the dollar reached a value of 150 Cuban pesos.
By the late 90s, the storm subsided and the US dollar stabilized at 24 pesos. Throughout the island hundreds of CADECAS opened, allowing people to buy or sell dollars.
In 2005, following a banking scandal in the Swiss bank UBS, which was fined one hundred million dollars by OFAC, in order to replace old dollars in a five-billion-dollar account in the name of the Cuban regime, Fidel Castro decreed a tax of 20% on the currency of the United States, his archenemy.
Illegal moneychangers like Erasmo began to sell the dollar at a better price. “The thousands of Cuban doctors and professionals working in Ecuador, Venezuela, and South Africa bought them one by one. They invested those dollars to buy duty-free goods, mobile phones, or plasma televisions which they then resold at three times their purchase price.”
In 2011, General Raúl Castro fixed the exchange rate for the dollar at 87 cents. “On the black market we’re always two or three steps ahead when it comes to the monetary policies of the government. It’s simple: we’re on the street and are guided by supply and demand. The state only knows how to govern with monopolies and decrees, not with the market,” Erasmo says.
That diluted exchange rate hurt more than 700,000 Cubans living in the U.S. who visited their homeland in 2014. “They’ve built a casino. Between one thing and another, I spent nearly seven thousand dollars. Their assessment siphoned off $910. They’re bandits,” says Santiago, a Havanan who lives in New York.
Augusto, an economist, suggests to people that they save whatever foreign exchange they get in dollars. “It is advisable, especially right now with the fall of the euro and the resurgence of the dollar. According to my calculations, when the currency in Cuba is unified, the dollar will shoot up. It won’t reach 120 pesos as in the 90s, but it will trade at three times what the banks pay, because inflation can become dangerous in the future, for the lack of takeoff in production of goods and food. If the government wants to increase tourism from the U.S. it should eliminate the arbitrary 13% tax.”
Since the summer of 2013, the military autocracy has declared its intention to unify the currency. Periodic rumors cause Cubans-without-milk-for-coffee to cover their backs for a possible devaluation of the convertible peso, changing their savings into dollars.
The Castro regime has ensured that, for the moment, the savings of citizens will not be affected. But the instinct of guys like Erasmo says that the money saved under the mattress is best held in dollars. Just in case.
Ivan Garcia, 14 April 2015 — While a marathon of presidential speeches takes place at Panama City’s Atlapa convention center, back in Cuba the real civil society — the one about which many talk but to which few listen — is biting its nails in front of the television, watching the Cuban baseball playoffs between the Tigers from Ciego de Avila and the Pirates from Isla de la Juventud.
Yordan, a steel worker from the outskirts of Havana, was one of them. It was while sitting down to play dominoes and drink rum with neighborhood friends one night that he learned about the meeting between Obama and Castro.
Suddenly in the role of armchair analysts, they speculated a bit about what a future partnership with the U.S. might hold.
“Listen, in spite of fifty-five years of being bombarded by negative press about the Yankees, most Cubans who decide to emigrate choose to go to the Yuma*. In Cuba everyone goes wild for American brands. Those old, worn-out theories and that stuff about annexation have nothing to do with what you see. Relatives and friends come back fatter and better dressed. They take you out for a beer, they show you photos of their cars and later they send you a tablet or smart phone. That is more powerful than any propaganda,” says Yordan, ebullient after downing half a liter of cheap rum.
Havana residents interviewed for this article all had an opinion on this topic. Sergio, a retired soldier, wonders if the decades-long rhetoric against the United States was worth it.
“I fought in the Angola civil war. Like others, I did it in the name of international proletarianism. At the time I thought Yankee imperialism would be ancient history by decade’s end. It’s been twenty-six years since I came back from Angola and the reality is quite different. If we don’t negotiate with the old enemy, the Cuban revolution won’t be sustainable. I feel sorry for the more than two thousand soldiers who lost their lives in someone else’s war,” says the former soldier.
Among the wide range of opinions held by average Cubans, there are enthusiastic optimists like Raudel, a young university student. “Now we will really build socialism. It will be by the shortest route, which is through capitalism. When we have three million tourists, fast food restaurants and broadband internet, come back and ask if people still believe in Fidel Castro and his boring anti-imperialist rallies,” he says in a jocular tone, sitting in a park and listening to Joaquin Sabina on a MP3 player.
It is not easy to find “Talibans” (extremists) who believe “negotiating with the enemy is a strategic mistake.” The vast majority of Cubans enthusiastically approve of the new agreement.
But there are also people such as Moises, a hard-core follower of Fidel Castro, who have their doubts. “I worry that Raul suffers from naiveté. Obama can be very charming and a large segment of the population is seduced by the American lifestyle. If we spread our legs too wide, Havana could end up being a suburb of Miami.”
Since the Obama-Castro policy change was announced on December 17, there has been a good vibe in Cuba. “Besides being our neighbor, the United States has always been a reference point for music, movies, sports and lifestyle,” notes Manuel, a historian.
“Twenty percent of the population lives in Florida. Miami is the country’s second city. Only Havana has a larger Cuban population. Russian cuisine and Venezuelan arepa never caught on here. But if you opened a McDonald’s or a Cafe Versailles, the line to get in would go on for miles. Our national heroes were dazzled by the American revolution. Despite our grievances and the Platt Amendment, Cubans admire the United States, which is not the case with some other Latin American countries.”
There are no television ratings in Cuba for the Summit of the Americas, but the only coverage for which people did not change the channel were the speeches by Obama and Raul Castro.
The Summit of the People and the tiresome rhetoric of Nicolas Maduro attracted little attention. The official narrative — accusing dissidents of being mercenaries and terrorists — was a distant echo.
“At the rate things are going, don’t be surprised if within five years the government feels like talking to the human rights people (as dissidents are referred to in Cuba). If we can talk to the Yankees, why not talk to them?” asks Eugenio, a self-employed taxi driver.
In spite of sudden shifts in optimism and suspicion after the December 17 announcement, it is clear that Obama is more popular in Cuba than in the United States. And his popularity far exceeds that of Raul Castro according to a recent survey.
This comes as no surprise. Since an African-American won the U.S. presidential elections in 2008, Afro-Cubans have felt some empathy for Obama. Even the Castros have thrown themselves at his feet.
Initially, Fidel tried to seduce him but, after being rebuffed by Obama, he once again took up the sword. And shedding a few tears was the only thing Raul failed to do in a speech at the summit in which he expressed his admiration for the current resident of the White House.
“I would not complain if the Americans wanted to trade Obama for Raul Castro. Or we could give them Fidel and Miguel Diaz-Canal. We’ll consider any offers,” says a young man who is listening to a rock performance at the park on G Street in Vedado.
If anyone’s popularity in Cuba has been bolstered, especially after the Summit of the Americas, it is Barack Obama.
*Translator’s note: Cuban slang for the U.S.
Ivan Garcia, 9 April 2015 — After the Sunday hangover drinking beer with various friends, Jose Pablo reluctantly tends to his stall where he sells pirated CDs with Hollywood films and Mexican and Colombian narco-novelas. At his stand you can find 2015 Oscar winners and in a worn black backpack, a collection of national and foreign pornography.
Jose Pablo is a talkative type. But when you ask him what benefits the upcoming Summit of the Americas, to be held in Panama April 10-11, would bring, with a sneer he responds, “Nothing. All these summits, be they Latin American, or CELAC, are more of the same. Speeches full of promises that in the end resolve nothing. It’s all rhetoric. It is an unnecessary waste of money.
While the official press is increasing the news coverage of the Summit, where the island will be seated in a meeting where supposedly nations must have full democratic requisites to participate, among ordinary Havanans, exhausted by the daily grind to put food on the table, these events are no more than strange far-off echoes.
For Daniel, repairing an old Dodge from the ’40s in his slightly grubby overalls, the bottom line is to keep the car on the road so it will continue to generate money to support his family.
“Politics in Cuba suck, The government goes one way and the people go the other. We Cubans no longer have any faith in our leaders. But we don’t have the mechanisms to change things. Then people do the best they can. With a quart of rum or a trip to the beach. I don’t plan to watch the Summit on TV. I don’t have time to watch those crappy speeches,” he says smiling.
Even bullet-proof optimists like Raisa, an engineer who hoped after December 17 that Cuba would finally change and become a normal country, four months later and with no roadmap from General Raul Castro has returned to her routine.
Reading newspapers that disinform rather than inform and, in order to complement her salary, she sells fruit juices at her work. “Only the retired or people interested in politics watch these televised rants. Cuban politicians float in another dimension. They don’t have to wrack their brains thinking about what they’re going to cook and how to make the money last to the end of the month. They are a Cuban and Venezuelan caste of self-proclaimed socialists,” she says in a biting tone.
If you wander down Avenida Santa Catalina, twenty minutes from the center of Havana, where the start of spring has brought out the brilliant red and orange flowers of the flamboyant trees flanking the road, and chat with the small business owners in the doorways of their homes or the retirees who sit in the park killing time, the upcoming Summit is not a priority.
The presidential talks, the historic photo of Obama and Castro II shaking hands, or the verbal boxing ring that star in the social forum preceding the Summit, only interest political actors and their hangers-on, in the official and dissident sector
Although their coffers are in the red, the State will pay the expenses of more than a hundred activists camouflaged as “civil society” — a buzzword. With their slick narrative, they will try to dismantle the plans of the opponents present in Panama.
The dissidents who will be traveling have prepared parallel summits throughout the Island. Despite the triumphalist headlines of the regime’s media, that the 7th Summit will offer a stage to accuse the United States of past, present and future tragedies, it would take a lot to convince people like Jose Pablo that forums like the one in Panama can mark a before and after in the nation’s life.
“With Raul Diaz-Canel, Elizardo Sanchez or any of the others who will someday become president, the poor will remain poor. Cuba isn’t going to change. No matter who governs. The option is to get out of here. The farther the better,” says Jose Pablo.
The daily drams, after decades of lines, rationing and shortages, and the powerlessness of the powerless to change things, has led a majority of Cuban society into apathy.
The escape valve is a raft, a visa, or spending a few hours watching South Korean soap operas. The present is worrisome. The future is scary.
Ivan Garcia, 28 March 2015 – It feels like a lot of time has gone by since noon on December 17 when Rogelio Horta’s family sat dumbfounded in front of the television listening to Raul Castro announce that Cuba and the United States would reestablish diplomatic relations.
Everything seemed perfect. There would be improved telecommunications and internet. Self-employed workers and cooperatives would have access to credit. If differences between the two countries were patched up, the economic situation would improve. But as time passed, people’s expectations changed,” admits Rogelio, the owner of a cafe southwest of Havana.
Three months after the newsflash, the feeling among average Cubans is that the new developments will not significantly change their lives.
The government of Raul Castro has not formulated a policy that would allow the private or cooperative economic sectors to sign business or financial deals with U.S. institutions.
“It’s all just propaganda. Americans tour cooperative farms and sugar plantations, celebrities film TV shows in Havana and take selfies with Fidel Castro’s children. But there are no actual results. Direct telephone calls are the same as before,” notes Armando, a scriptwriter for radio soap operas.
People have been edging from optimism to anger. Such is the mood of Josuan, an independent taxi driver who was excited by Obama’s words. Perhaps a bit too much.
On Christmas Eve, three months ago, Josuan envisioned a dream-like future: “I thought the Cuban economy would open up and self-employed workers would have more opportunities. The topic of conversation was how we could take advantage of the new situation. But the government has brought us down from the clouds. Now with the soap opera that is Venezuela, the press doesn’t even mention the third round of (US-Cuban) talks being held in Havana,” he says.
The official media barely even noticed Roberta Jacobson’s second visit to Cuba. Nor were a swarm of foreign journalists seen in the streets of Havana and nothing has emerged on the meetings between Jacobsen and her counterpart, Josefina Vidal.
The media hoopla has morphed into a mysterious silence, which is probably the perfect setting to achieve agreements that will satisfy both parties.
For better informed Cubans such as Ortelio, a former government official, the concern is that any shift in U.S. foreign policy could derail the process.
“Negotiating with the Castros is very complex,” says Ortelio. “They’re like spoiled children. Any action by American policy makers that displeases them could endanger the negotiations. The official line is that Obama’s sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials will not interfere with the process. I hope that’s the case and that our government shows intelligence and responsibility. For twenty-five years Cuba has experienced an ongoing economic crisis with no end in sight. If we don’t develop our economy and improve our standard of living, the exodus from the island will continue. There is a limit to how much people will tolerate.”
Danilo, an architect, believes it is all stage managed. “The speeches by Cuban officials are meant to please the Latin American and European left,” he believes. “Raul Castro will not miss this chance with the U.S. to pass by, but he needs Venezuelan oil. If Venezuela were to steal the show at the next Summit of the Americas, it would be a good smokescreen to continue negotiating behind the scenes. Maduro has an expiration date. He’ll lose power before too long. He is a useful idiot.”
While strategies are drawn up in the corridors of power in Havana and Washington, the initial enthusiasm among Cubans over the surprising diplomatic shift has been eclipsed.
Since December 17 owners of private lodgings and restaurants, taxi drivers, the poor, prostitutes and hustlers have benefitted from the presence of affluent Americans with fat wallets, especially in the oldest part of the city, which is the section most visited by tourists.
Havana residents hope that within two years broadband internet and U.S. dollars will extend across every neighborhood in the capital. Maduro is not welcome here. Long speeches and a litany of grievances are all he has to offer. People have been listening to this narrative more many years now. And they are tired of it.
Photo: In spite American tourists, U.S. flags and movie stars turning up in Havana, Cubans’ enthusiasm for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States has been waning. Prensa de Nicaragua.